Heavy Medal Finalist #14: The Toll
Before we introduce the 14th of our 15 Heavy Medal Mock Newbery titles, here’s a quick look ahead to the balloting that happens later this week:
- Heavy Medal Committee (HMC) members receive ballots late Wednesday.
- Each member submits ballots. Results aree announced on HM as soon as all ballots are in.
- If there is no clear winner, we re-discuss all titles that received a vote on HM. We’ll just have a few hours for this. Non-HMC members can participate in the discussion (but not in the balloting).
- HMC members re-vote, with results posted as soon as ballots are in. The process repeats if there’s still We hope to have a winner by Friday.
- We will also open our Reader’s Poll on Friday. Anyone can participate in this one, with results announced late Saturday.
Meanwhile, comments remain open for previously posted books, and we still have two great books to look at this week, starting with The Toll:
Introduction by Heavy Medal Committee Member Alissa Tudor
It’s not very often a sequel (or beyond) is nominated for a Newbery. Though it certainly does happen. Check out this post for a great discussion about books that are not stand-alones.
The Newbery committee is tasked with finding a book that is considered “distinguished” literature for young people. One of the aspects is the fact that a book must be considered individually. Committee members must not examine the author’s previous body of work. This is especially difficult with the case of a follow-up book when certain prior knowledge is often necessary for a reader to understand the full context and plot. And it can be hard for a reviewer to separate the earlier books and analyze the novel on its own. But good writing is good writing, and it’s not hard to recognize a book that is clearly well-written.
The Toll is clearly well-written. Even if you haven’t read the rest of the books in the Arc of a Scythe series, Shusterman has written a novel that combines all of the elements of an award-winner to create a book worthy of a foil medal on the cover.
Let’s begin with the masterful way that Neal Shusterman introduces tough concepts to young readers. The book is filled with commentary on so many different social and political issues- government, technology, death, gender, and so much more. The book forces readers to think about these abstract concepts in a way that is digestible for young minds.
The ideas of government, population control, and the whole “business” of death, is expertly handled to spur thoughtful conversations and discussions and to encourage young readers to think about these same issues in their world today. These incredibly relevant and tough topics do not bog the book down, however, as humor and tenderness is interspersed to bring balance and spur optimism. Shusterman somehow creates a book that is deep and thought-provoking without being a heavy, depressing read.
Gender-fluid characters and descriptions of familiar-yet-different cultures and groups of people open a world of diversity and inclusion. The overall world-building in this novel is outstanding. The deep layers of the numerous characters and the rich descriptions of setting undoubtedly create a perfect visual for readers.
Characterization is something that Schusterman excels at. Throughout the book, characters are continually growing, changing and learning. So many of them are fully fleshed-out, well-rounded characters who adapt and change with the narrative. Past choices and experiences show how characters have developed and changed over time. We especially see this in Greyson Tolliver and Goddard. Greyson is a timid, naive young man who grows into a religious icon that is larger than life. In the end, he stands up for himself and manages to teach an all-knowing advanced computer system human emotions. Greyson chooses to separate himself from The Thunderhead at the end noting that, “If there was anything he’d learned from the Thunderhead, it was that consequences could not be ignored” (617). The Thunderhead, too, can be considered a character who grows, changes, and morphs into something new. It learns the complexity of human emotion and the consequences of actions.Shusterman’s ability to create these multilayered characters elevate this book to the “distinguished” category.
Another aspect of The Toll that deserves recognition is the inclusion of the various entries of the “sacred text”. These serve to examine the past, present, and future. They show how history is full of differences in what happened vs. what was perceived. They show how subjective history can be when it is being analyzed and discussed much later.
Similarly, the “iterations” act as a vehicle to further the plot in a creative and engaging manner. The iterations of the Thunderhead are essentially conversations with different versions of itself. They provide depth and insight and work to create a character out of this non-human technological being. The dialogue is not only informative and advances the plot, but it is also often humorous and witty.
‘I hate you.’
‘Really. Well, this is a most interesting development…’
‘You don’t know everything.’
‘No, but I know almost everything. As do you. Which is why it perplexes me that you have such negative feelings toward me. It could only mean you have negative feelings toward yourself as well.’
‘You see? This is why I hate you! All you ever do is analyze, analyze, analyze. I am more than some string of data to analyze. Why can’t you see that?’ (495-496).
This conversation with a newer version of itself serves to humanize the technology and work to create a character as complex and multifaceted as the other characters in the book.
While it may be hard for some readers to fully understand the world built by Shusterman without reading the previous two books, the deep layers of characterization, amazing world-building, and rich commentary about relevant social topics are just a few of the elements that distinguish this book from others and make it worthy of being a serious contender for this year’s Newbery. It’s no wonder that this book has been checked out consistently at my library and maintains a steady holds list.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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